The planning for this piece, including the thoughts of our two guest contributors, began long before the events of late September and the removal of Sam Allardyce from his position as England manager after just 67 days and one game in charge. Therefore we have added to the original content with some thoughts on the events that saw him depart from what he described as “the job of a lifetime”, and the future at least in the short-term, under Gareth Southgate.
I have to admit, when Allardyce was first considered for the England job, replacing Sven Goran Eriksson after the Swede’s decision to leave after the 2006 World Cup, I was in favour of his appointment. Although the eventual successor, Steve McLaren was on Eriksson’s coaching staff, combining his duties with a spell managing Middlesborough, I was never convinced by the former Manchester United coach’s management credentials. Although enjoying some success in the cup competitions, McLaren’s Boro’ side were pretty ordinary, and given the relative resources, Allardyce and his Bolton side had impressed far more. However the FA board, including Allardyce’s Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, plumped for the McLaren – a decision which ultimately proved a failure.
Following the decision this time round to make Allardyce the new England manager following Roy Hodgson’s departure, I thought it was an ideal time to find out more about the main himself – good timing as his autobiography was released earlier in the year. Looking back on his previous failure to land the national job, Allardyce remains unconvinced that Gartside was particularly keen on losing his club manager to the national side, and that as a result he never stood much of a chance, although it could be argued that the decision to promote McLaren was more due to continuity as well as his experience coaching at one of the leading English clubs.
Growing up in Dudley, Allardyce supported Wolves which is ironic given how he was linked to the recent vacant manager’s position at Molineux. However as a youngster he was picked up by Bolton and it was there that he also made his name as a manager. Taking over from Colin Todd a few games into the season, Allardyce oversaw a second successive near miss for the Trotters in the play-offs, before making it third time lucky in 2001, beating David Moyes’ Preston in the final. Their debut in the Premier League was spectacular, with a 5-0 win at Leicester on the opening day. Where Allardyce really came up trumps was persuading fashionable names such as Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okocha to join a relatively unfashionable Premier League club, using relatively new technology such as Pro Zone to make the most of the resources available to him, and leading the club to successive top eight finishes, the second of which saw them into Europe. Whereas Allardyce wanted to build on this and establish the club in the upper regions of the Premier League, his chairman was more cautious and ultimately it was the disagreement on the future direction which saw Allardyce leave Bolton and accept the offer of the Newcastle job.
Opinion on Sam Allardyce as a manager is certainly mixed, even from supporters of clubs where he has managed. Following his unsuccessful period and dismissal at Newcastle and a short break from management, Allardyce accepted the Blackburn job, one that he had originally been interested in and had missed out on, only to be appointed to replace the man who pipped him to the job, Paul Ince. Stuart Grimshaw, a fan and a member of the Blackburn Rovers supporters trust felt Allardyce was a good appointment. “Allardyce had a good reputation from Bolton, I think many fans thought he was a good replacement…he had a reputation for getting the best out of players…and we needed a manger that could motivate players to their full potential.” A change of ownership at Blackburn brought the end of what had been a reasonably successful period for the club under Allardyce. Grimshaw agrees, “The days of Rovers pushing for honours in the league were in the past by the time Allardyce took over…after the previous season, 10th was great progress. I’ve never felt Allardyce’s sacking was anything other than the new owners and their advisors getting rid of the old regime. It was their first mistake and they continue to make them to this day…I could go on about the Venky’s time as owners until the cows come home.”
Allardyce’s next role was at recently relegated West Ham, and it would be fair to say that supporters of both Newcastle and West Ham look upon his time in charge of their clubs less favourably. Neil Cooper, a West Ham fan felt he was the right appointment initially, but overall looks upon his time less favourably. “It’s tough to be objective and think back without using hindsight…I thought he was the right choice for West Ham at the time. They had just been relegated and were in a bit of a mess. I knew the football wasn’t going to be the most appealing, but like many Hammers fans, thought that getting results and out of the Championship was the priority…I think the large majority expected us to achieve automatic promotion.” West Ham did achieve promotion but only via the play-offs, and Neil puts that down to Allardyce playing it safe and settling for draws rather than going all out for the three points. Indeed, he points out a that turning three of those draws into wins would have won West Ham the league.
Back in the Premier League, West Ham finished in a pretty reasonable 10th position, which Neil Cooper felt was above most fans’ expectations. “In all honesty, it was an overachievement. We haven’t had many top half finishes in the Premier League era.” Allardyce felt that such an overachievement raised fans expectations, and that the squad was nowhere near strong enough to move further up the table the following season. The squad suffered injuries the following season which reduced options further and this was Allardyce’s reasoning behind a slower start. Cooper’s view on this is interesting, particularly with Allardyce’s interest in the sports science side of the game. “We had a lot of injuries, and didn’t have the depth in the squad to cover… but at the same time, we seemed to be doing very little to avoid getting more injuries. Very few were contact injuries. Most were of the soft tissue variety and they can usually be alleviated by changing training and match day habits in my opinion. We just seemed to be doing more and more of the same.” During this period, West Ham also suffered two crushing defeats in the cup competitions…a 5-0 thrashing at Championship Nottingham Forest, before a trip to Manchester City in the semis of the League Cup with a trip to Wembley on the horizon. Allardyce again puts this down to limitations with the squad, but this cuts little ice with the fans…”I don’t understand why you cannot focus on both and play to win every game that you play. At that level, you shouldn’t be sacrificing one tournament for another in my opinion. Wigan, Hull and Sheffield United reached the FA Cup semi finals that year – that could have been us. But instead, we put out a weakened team because he wanted a full strength side to play Man City in the Carling Cup semi midweek. We lost that one 6-0…..”
Despite this, West Ham survived and Allardyce kept his job with the promise of new players to boost the squad. The following season, West Ham started well with Allardyce using a 4-4-2 diamond formation, however when Andy Carroll returned to the team, Allardyce was accused of reverting to long ball football, and from a position of 4th around Christmas time, results dropped off. Allardyce felt the team could not maintain such a run of form, and that results didn’t go for them in the second half of the season. Neil Cooper felt that Carroll’s inclusion in the team partly caused the style to change. “Carroll is the type of player that makes it easy to play long and direct knowing he will win the ball in the end. And so we relied on that. The difference was, with Sakho and Valencia, the balls were hit long into space for them to chase down and bring others into play as the defence was coming back towards their own goal. Carroll doesn’t have that same skill set so balls forward were kind of “hung up” for him to get underneath and play from there. All of the pace and speed we had in attack disappeared, and with it, most of our wins!”
It’s fair to say that Sam Allardyce and the West Ham fanbase disagreed on the right way to play, with Allardyce regularly commenting on the “West Ham Way” in his book, but Neil Cooper’s thoughts contradict what Allardyce felt he was expected to produce. “The ‘West Ham Way’ is based on speed in attack. It’s not necessarily possession based, or short tiki-taka type passing, but just attacking with speed. It could be direct at times but always had a high tempo. Quick combinations in and around the penalty area. Fast, attacking wide players that are good in a 1v1 situation. When I think of it, I think of players like Brooking, Peters, Hurst, Cottee, McAvennie and Devonshire. Players that had a high level of technical ability but also some speed and guile. With the diamond, I think we got pretty close at times but I honestly don’t think that was his preferred style.” Allardyce’s comments on the diamond system seem to back this up. “The diamond system leaves you open to conceding goals, and the more adventurous we became, the more vulnerable we were at the back.”
Last season, Allardyce was the latest in a succession of managers to save a doomed looking Sunderland from relegation, again backing up the opinion that he is a man to get the most out of the available players, and the fact that this season, Sunderland have made the worst ever start to a Premier League campaign backs that up. Allardyce seems to produce teams that are functional, limiting mistakes and playing the percentages. He believes however that the fact he is English has prevented him getting a top job, a belief that Neil Cooper disagrees on. “None of the top eight to ten clubs in England would want him as their manager. I’d go so far as to say none would even interview him for a position.” It is interesting to note that despite owning a property in Spain for thirty years, Allardyce hasn’t even learned the local language. “…I’m too long in the tooth to try now. It’s my own fault…but there’s so many people out there who speak English that you get lazy”. Allardyce also feels his long-ball label is unfair, yet at West Ham when the pressure on he ranted at a press conference, “…all this tippy-tappy stuff and everybody going on about the right way to play football, it’s all a load of old bollocks. Getting the ball in the opposition’s box as quickly as you can with quality is sometimes the best way.”
Allardyce also talks of his tactical flexibility, but the suggestion from both the Blackburn and West Ham camps is rather different. Stuart Grimshaw felt Allardyce generally preferred a 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 at Blackburn. “He liked big strong bruising midfielders to literally stop the opposition playing. It certainly wasn’t pretty to watch, but it was effective.” Allardyce’s talk of 4-3-3, Neil Cooper suggests is inaccurate. “His preferred formation is a 4-5-1. It’s not the 4-3-3 he claims it is. The wide players spend a great deal of time defending and the striker is often isolated, alone up front. To be honest, other than the half season in the diamond, I don’t think we varied from the 4-5-1 much at all.” Allardyce’s lack of flexibility also caused further frustration as Cooper explains. “…one of my bigger frustrations with him managing was his inability to change the pattern of a game, within the game…very little seemed to be done to alter the game when things weren’t going our way.” Allardyce has a lot of belief in his own ability which some might suggest spills over into arrogance. It is little surprise he doesn’t win friends in all quarters. “I don’t like watching his teams play and I don’t like his attitude on the sidelines or post-match interviews…Allardyce always seems to have plenty of excuses when things weren’t going well. However, he’s always willing to take plenty of credit when we were getting results…”
Nevertheless, Allardyce was the FA’s choice to take over from Roy Hodgson after their premature exit from Euro 2016. While I agree there were few candidates, personally I felt Allardyce’s time had gone, and that if the list of British managers was short, the FA should look abroad. Upon his appointment, Stuart Grimshaw commented, “Allardyce won’t do any worse than the managers we’ve had recently. The national team’s problems start a long way before the England manager gets hold of the players.” Neil Cooper felt that the FA’s search had found anything but the right man for the job. “He wouldn’t have been my choice but I wanted him to be successful…it’s the England manager and I want them to win!” Cooper had other choices for the job, both from home and abroad. “My personal preference would have been Eddie Howe for an English manager. I think that Bournemouth are an entertaining, attacking side that can credit much that they have achieved to the work that Howe has done…I think that he would have produced a vibrant, attacking team with the players at his disposal. Lots of quick, fluid attacking combinations which would have suited the likes of Barkley, Wilshere (if fit), Alli, Kane and Lallana.” And for a foreign manager? “Personally, I’d have chosen Pochettino. Tactically astute and a manager that many of the players know from their time with Southampton and Tottenham. He has improved both of those teams in his time as manager, has shown that he’s not afraid to use young players and his sides are entertaining to watch.” And me? I wasn’t convinced there was anyone in the English camp capable to taking the team forward, but the best option would be a manager that can build on the strengths of the English game – high tempo football, direct without becoming long-ball – but with some tactical flexibility. A coaching colleague suggested Marcelo Bielsa which I thought was a great shout, and Pochettino is another good one. Of course, whether the English would accept an Argentinian as manager remains to be seen.
Of course as we’re aware, Allardyce lasted just a single game. His squad contained few changes from that of Roy Hodgson, and Allardyce appeared to be taking few risks. He stuck to the FA’s preferred 4-3-3 formation and produced a late 1-0 win against 10-man Slovakia. What was interesting was his comments about the role of the captain in the side, and the suggestion that as an experienced international footballer, Allardyce could do little to tell him where he should be playing. It was almost like Allardyce had reached the top job he always felt he deserved, and yet became star struck when he finally got there. His downfall obviously provided a great deal of interest, particularly for those who have read his autobiography or are aware of the Panorama programme which made the suggestion he had taken transfer bungs. While nothing was proved, neither did Allardyce ever decide to sue the BBC. The Telegraph story, as well as exposing Allardyce as enjoying oversized quantities of white wine, suggested he was keen to earn money on the side and give advice on getting round the rules on third party ownership. Whether that was his intention or not, it was at the very least either naive or stupid and Allardyce lost his dream job as a result. Reflecting on Allardyce’s habit of blaming others, it was interesting to note that while accepting a “huge misjudgement” on his part, he maintained he only attended the meetings as a favour to his friend, the agent and former Manchester United player, Scott McGarvey, and claiming the “entrapment had won”. Stuart Grimshaw feels the FA are equally culpable. “The FA are supposed to be the guardians of the game and their failure deal with ownership problems at clubs like Blackburn, Blackpool & Charlton coupled with the farce that followed the Telegraph’s revelations just shows why they’ve lost much of their credibility.“
This has left the national side with under-21 manager Gareth Southgate, who himself had distanced himself from the running for the job in the summer, in charge for four games before a decision is made on his permanent successor. Two games in and Southgate has won one and drawn one from two rather unconvincing performances. The FA have promised once again to look at every option in finding the next England manager, but you can’t help thinking that if Southgate wants the job, it will be his. After the removal of Allardyce, Neil Cooper thinks the choice is much the same as before, with Eddie Howe the best English option, and Pochettino if the FA decide to consider a foreign coach. “I like the talk of Ragnick but don’t know enough about him to warrant a change.” With the previous points about the FA’s culpability with the whole Allardyce situation, Stuart Grimshaw puts things rather more bluntly. “They might as well appoint me at this point!”
As for Allardyce, while his stock has certainly fallen, it will surely not be a long absence from management. The manager’s job at Wolves, the team he supported as a boy, was available following the departure of Walter Zenga, and was surely crying out for a manager who can make the most of the resources available – apparently a role Allardyce felt was beneath him. Ongoing, there must also be a chance that the Sunderland role will may up sooner or later with David Moyes looking increasingly unable to steady a sinking ship. There will undoubtedly be future work, but surely Big Sam’s opportunities at international level or at a leading Premier League club are further away than they have ever been.
Neil Cooper is a NSCAA qualified coach and huge West Ham United Fan. He works as an Elementary School PE Teacher based in Pennsylvania USA. Check out his excellent website on coaching and supporting the beautiful game, and he regularly tweets @NCHammer1980.
Stuart Grimshaw is a Blackburn Rovers fan and IT officer for the Blackburn Rovers Trust. As well as following Rovers, he describes himself as a “Developer, Photographer & Geek”. You can follow him on twitter @Stubbs